Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Russia Releases WNBA Star in Prisoner Swap With U.S.

Brittney Griner was swapped for notorious Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Griner is shown looking to the side in a shirt that reads PHOENIX BASKETBALL.
Griner is shown looking to the side in a shirt that reads PHOENIX BASKETBALL.
U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner arrives at a hearing at the Khimki court, outside Moscow, on July 27. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Did you have a good night’s sleep? The fine folks at Twitter didn’t. The Elon Musk-run company is now converting rooms at the San Francisco headquarters into bedrooms to work longer hours, the BBC reports. Musk even has his own dresser there.

Join Us Live: Join us on Thursday at 12 p.m. EST for a live virtual event, where we’re joining our colleagues to talk shop on the latest fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine and also the breaking news of WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release from prison. Register for the event here.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Russia releases WNBA star in prisoner swap, a coup plot in Germany is foiled, and the United States reconsiders its stance on not sending cluster munitions to Ukraine.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Did you have a good night’s sleep? The fine folks at Twitter didn’t. The Elon Musk-run company is now converting rooms at the San Francisco headquarters into bedrooms to work longer hours, the BBC reports. Musk even has his own dresser there.

Join Us Live: Join us on Thursday at 12 p.m. EST for a live virtual event, where we’re joining our colleagues to talk shop on the latest fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine and also the breaking news of WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release from prison. Register for the event here.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Russia releases WNBA star in prisoner swap, a coup plot in Germany is foiled, and the United States reconsiders its stance on not sending cluster munitions to Ukraine.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Griner Released

News broke Thursday morning that WNBA star Brittney Griner had been released from a Russian penal colony after the Biden administration orchestrated a high-profile prisoner swap with the Russian government.

“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in remarks at the White House on Thursday. “She will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”

Griner was detained in February on drug charges after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in them in her luggage at the Moscow airport. She was later jailed and sentenced to nine years in prison in what U.S. officials said were trumped-up and politically motivated charges.

The other guy. The Biden administration swapped Griner for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms smuggler who was 11 years into a 25-year prison sentence in the United States. Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to sell millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to a U.S.-designated terrorist organization in Colombia, with the intent of using those weapons to kill Americans, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Michael Braun, a former top U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official who oversaw U.S. efforts to capture Bout, argued in Foreign Policy in August that releasing Bout would open the United States to new national security risks. “Moscow could just as easily put him back to work planning and executing clandestine supply missions in support of Russian proxies like the Wagner Group in Africa, Venezuela, and other hot spots,” he wrote.

The swap. A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave some details on how this high-profile prisoner exchange came about. The decision to swap Griner for Bout came as a “product of months and months of painstaking negotiations,” the official said. In recent days, Griner was moved from the penal colony where she was serving her sentence to Moscow and then from Moscow she was flown to the United Arab Emirates, where U.S. officials were waiting with Bout to carry out the swap.

What comes next? For the Griner family, a joyful reunion after a nightmarish saga that’s hard to fathom for anyone who hasn’t been through it. Griner is expected to be flown to a medical facility in San Antonio to receive treatment there as well as reunite with her wife, Cherelle Griner. (Cherelle Griner was in the Oval Office with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris when the news broke.)

For another family, this news brings more heartache and sorrow. Paul Whelan, an American ex-Marine who was detained in Russia in late 2018 on what the United States calls baseless and false espionage charges, remains stuck in Russian prison as concerns over his ailing health mount.

The senior official said the Biden team notified Whelan’s family of the Griner news in advance of the announcement and remains committed to securing Whelan’s release. The official said that because Whelan is detained on baseless espionage charges, Russia “continues to treat his situation differently” and “rejected each and every one of our proposals for his release.”

“I want to be very clear: This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none,” the official said.

The news had led Whelan’s family to question what leverage the United States has left over Russia to get his release, now that Bout is back in Russian hands. David Whelan, the brother of Paul Whelan, told CNN that he welcomed Griner’s release but that his brother’s fate was still up in the air. “We do worry about what’s in Paul’s future. I think it’s become clear that the U.S. doesn’t have any concessions that the Russian government wants for Paul, so I’m not really sure what the future holds,” he said.

The bigger debate. In Washington, the good news of Griner’s release will likely revive a long-standing debate in U.S. foreign policy over whether these types of high-profile prisoner exchanges have a long-term cost, as well. Some former Trump administration officials are already criticizing the Biden administration for what they say is a lopsided deal that favors Russia, given Bout’s notoriety and the grave crimes of which he was convicted. Some also argue that carrying out high-profile prisoner swaps could incentivize autocratic countries to detain Americans as geopolitical pawns for leverage over Washington.


Let’s Get Personnel

Biden has named Michelle Giuda to the International Broadcasting Advisory Board. She was previously undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs during the Trump administration.

The State Department has tapped Kelly M. Fay Rodríguez as special representative for international labor affairs.

U.S. House Speaker-elect Kevin McCarthy has tapped Rep. Mike Gallagher to lead the newly established Select Committee on China.


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

Germany arrests more coup plotters. German police are aiming to make further arrests after foiling a right-wing coup plot this week that aimed to install an aristocrat as the leader of the country.

Holger Münch, the head of Germany’s federal police office, said Thursday that the number of suspects involved is over 150—many of them COVID-19 deniers suspicious of the federal government in Berlin and members of the QAnon conspiracy cult—and the tally could still rise. The plot aimed to put Prince Heinrich XIII of Reuss in power. (The Twitterati have already dubbed Heinrich to be a character out of a Wes Anderson movie.)

So you’re saying there’s a chance? The Biden administration has not ruled out Ukraine’s controversial request for cluster munitions to fight off Russia’s invasion, CNN reports. The weapons, which scatter bomblets that can create risks for civilians, are under statutory restrictions from the U.S. Congress and are banned by more than 100 countries.

A congressional rule banning the export of munitions that have more than a 1 percent dud rate could be a hang-up in a possible deal, which still has not received significant consideration from the administration. But Ukraine has continued asking for them as Western stockpiles of other munitions dwindle further. Foreign Policy reported on the requests in October.

Bad Chad. Chad’s transitional government is using repressive tactics to crack down on dissent, Katie Nodjimbadem reports in Foreign Policy, with the country’s public prosecutor on Monday sentencing nearly 350 people to prison sentences for participating in protests in October on a date that was supposed to mark the end of the country’s long political transition after the death of longtime leader Idriss Déby last April.

But criticism from the international community on the latest in a string of crackdowns in Chad has been mum, as France and other European countries are increasingly reliant on interim Chadian leader Mahamat Idriss Déby to deal with the specter of terrorism in the region.


Put on Your Radar

Dec. 13: The U.N. Security Council meets to discuss the humanitarian crises in Yemen and South Sudan.

Dec. 13-15: Nearly 50 African heads of state and delegation come to Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

Dec. 15-16: The European Union hosts a European Council leaders summit.


Quote of the Week

“Military theory does not account for regular dudes with track pants and hunting rifles.”

Ukraine’s top military commander, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, gives one explanation for the defense of Kyiv to Time magazine during the Russian invasion’s first weeks.


FP’s Most Read This Week

Sanctions on Russia Are Working. Here’s Why. by Agathe Demarais

Why Switzerland vs. Serbia Is Really All About Kosovo by Aleks Eror 

Mesut Ozil’s Ghost Still Haunts Germany by Allison Meakem


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Bald-faced. If you’re running for U.S. senator as a Democrat in a swing state, it pays to be bald. That’s according to sometime Foreign Policy contributor Brent Peabody, who tweeted to possible 2024 contenders in tough races “please let me shave your head” after hairless candidates John Fetterman, Raphael Warnock, and Mark Kelly all prevailed in tough races in 2022. The bald test doesn’t quite hold up for all Democrats, though: Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes—also sporting a shaved head—lost a close race to incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson in November.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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